Hartford Bids a Bilingual Goodbye to a White-Collar Past
New York Times
May 5, 2003
By PAUL von ZIELBAUER
HARTFORD, May 2 - To the outside world, Hartford still conjures images of
bankers and brokers, hairdressers and haberdashers, a white-collar legacy of a
calmly efficient insurance empire. Indeed, that was Hartford. In 1950.
Nowadays, this is far more a struggling city with a diverse population that
frequents soul food restaurants and supermercados, poultry markets and
panaderias. And, more than ever, Hartford is becoming a city that looks and
sounds less like Katharine Hepburn and Gregory Peck and more like Carlos Lopez
and Freddy Ortiz.
Mr. Lopez, 58, a native of Cuba and one of Hartford's most successful
businessmen, sells furniture in the Little Puerto Rico section of Park Street,
where English is the second language. A few blocks away, on Broad Street, Mr.
Ortiz, 61, who arrived here 18 years ago to work for someone else, runs his own
bakery, selling Caribbean breads and Latin desserts that attract Hispanics from
Boston and Manhattan.
Like roughly half of the other 250 or so Hispanic business owners in Hartford,
Mr. Ortiz, who moved here from Ponce, P.R., speaks only Spanish, but that is all
right with him.
Founded by a Dutchman and settled by Puritans, Hartford now has the greatest
percentage of Hispanic residents of any major city north of Florida and east of
"We've become a Latin city, so to speak," Eddie A. Perez, who last year became
the first Hispanic mayor in Hartford's 367-year history, said in a recent
interview. "It's a sign of things to come."
Hispanics now account for more than 40 percent of the city's population - the
largest concentration among major cities outside California, Texas, Colorado and
Florida, 2000 Census Bureau figures show. More than half of Hartford's
schoolchildren are Hispanic, and city and state officials expect Hartford's
demographic trend to continue.
The Latinization of Hartford, while not universally embraced, took a
high-profile turn with the election of Mayor Perez, a New York City native of
Puerto Rican heritage who moved to Hartford as a boy in 1969. Since he was
elected, City Hall has clearly changed: Mr. Perez's confidential secretary and
executive assistant, as well as the city's corporation counsel and two City
Council members, are all native Spanish speakers.
Other signs of the times: the city's Web page is bilingual, and after-hours
callers to the mayor's office are greeted first by a message in Spanish: "Este
mensaje sería repetido en español" (This message will be repeated in Spanish.).
"In the bank, they speak Spanish; at the hospital, they speak Spanish; my bakery
suppliers are starting to speak some Spanish," Mr. Ortiz said - in Spanish -
during a break from his bread-making. "Even at the post office, they are
Americans, but they speak Spanish."
The Latino boom, of course, is not unique to Hartford. Hispanics are now the
largest minority group in the United States, and demographics experts say that
by 2050, one-quarter of the nation's population will have Latin roots.
Black support is also considered essential at City Hall - 38 percent of
Hartford's residents are African-American. But if population trends continue as
predicted, Hartford will be the first state capital with a Hispanic majority.
"Those numbers translate into economic and political power," said Julio Morales,
a professor at the University of Connecticut's Graduate School of Social Work.
"The pace is moving at a faster rate than in the past."
The rapid growth has been accompanied by problems like poverty and school
Hartford's Hispanic roots developed in the 1940's, as Puerto Rican laborers
mostly from the island's smaller towns and rural villages were hired to harvest
Connecticut's tobacco. Since the 1960's, as more Puerto Ricans settled in
between blacks on the North End and Hartford's dwindling white population on the
South End, they have been joined by Cuban, Portuguese, Dominican, Colombian,
Peruvian, Brazilian and Mexican immigrants.
Tobacco jobs are no longer a lodestone for Puerto Ricans, but the Latin
migration to Hartford and other parts of Connecticut - less crowded, more
affordable and not as ultracompetitive as New York City and its increasingly
dense suburbs - has steadily grown since the late 1980's.
"Compared to New York, Hartford is country, man," said Hector M. Torres,
president of the Hispanic Yellow Pages, whose 145,000 subscribers in Connecticut
and western Massachusetts - half of them in Hartford and New Haven Counties -
represent a fivefold increase from the directory's first edition in 1989.
Many of his newer customers, Mr. Torres said, are entrepreneurs who left New
York City and Boston for Hartford's less competitive market and slower pace.
"`It's a great advantage," he said, "and it does bring a lot of Hispanic
Central and South American restaurants and shops are now almost as easy to find
as the Puerto Rican and Portuguese businesses that preceded them. Last year, the
Peruvian consulate in Boston opened an office in downtown Hartford. And in June,
the Spanish-American Merchants Association plans to begin a $6.5 million
overhaul of Park Street's roads, sidewalks, street lights and bus shelters.
The 18-month project was intended to make Little Puerto Rico into the New
England hub of Hispanic commerce, said Julio Mendoza, the association's
"We want to empower ourselves," Mr. Mendoza said, "and we want to be known as a
But the influx of mostly Puerto Rican Hispanics from New York and elsewhere has
stretched Hartford's ability to absorb all the newcomers. Jose Cruz, an
associate professor of political science at the State University of New York at
Albany, who published a book about the city's Puerto Rican population, said many
families relocated here without a job and with few ways to make money quickly.
"In many ways, socioeconomically, they are jumping from the frying pan into the
fire," Professor Cruz said in an interview. In his 1998 book, he noted that
poverty rates in some Puerto Rican neighborhoods approached 45 percent.
Hartford's schools are also struggling to correct another acute problem: the
dearth of students in the city's mostly black North End schools and the
overcrowded classrooms on the heavily Hispanic South End.
City officials say these are temporary growing pains. While Schools
Superintendent Robert Henry, a native of Costa Rica, plans to balance classroom
sizes by redrawing school district boundaries, Mr. Perez, the mayor, is planning
to create jobs by bringing in Hispanic-led corporations to complement, or
compete with, the city's financial services and fading manufacturing sectors.
Twice in the past year, Mr. Perez has traveled to Puerto Rico to persuade bank
and retail executives to begin operations here.
Last month, executives from Doral Bank, owned by a Puerto Rican conglomerate,
spent three days in Hartford to discuss opening a branch here that would
specialize in home loans, city officials said. Mr. Perez has made raising
Hartford's dismal 24.5 percent home-ownership rate a priority, and his aides
said they expected Doral's chief executive to visit sometime in the next several
A few weeks before the Doral meeting, Mr. Perez also sat down with Manuel Cidre,
president of the Puerto Rican Manufacturers' Association, whose members
represent a vast source of potential business opportunities for Hartford, a city
desperate for jobs and skilled workers.
But formidable barriers - economic, political and cultural - still must be
overcome before Latinos, a young and politically inexperienced group in a city
gripped by severe economic problems, can control Hartford as the close-knit
group of insurance executives did so famously in the city's affluent postwar
Though they are a force in the city, Hispanics make up only 10 percent of the
1.1 million residents of the greater metropolitan area, where the mostly white
suburbs tend to view Hartford as an impoverished aberration in one of the
nation's wealthiest regions. And in a city with such deep Anglo heritage, many
Hispanic officials and executives acknowledge that they are still often
recognized more for street festivals and salsa music than for economic and
"The barriers have not come down," said Edna N. Negron, director of the Puerto
Rico Federal Affairs Administration's office in Hartford. "There is a trust
level for white folks that we don't have."
Though the trend is in decline, many Hispanic merchants here talk about how
local banks were reluctant to grant loans and help start their businesses.
Freddy Ortiz, the Puerto Rican baker, said that five years ago, he could not
even persuade the electric company to switch on the power in the run-down
building he planned to turn into his bakery.
"They said I had no credit," he said. Mr. Ortiz, who paid $39,000 in commercial
taxes last year, eventually received a loan from the Spanish-American Merchants
Association that allowed him to set up shop.
And many local Hispanic politicians feel that their priorities are not always
those of the state's power brokers.
Ms. Negron and other Hispanic leaders have criticized a $771 million downtown
revitalization plan here, which includes building a hotel, convention center,
new apartment and shopping districts and a tourist-luring science center. They
contend that it ignores the city's major Hispanic commercial district, one mile
"I think people are understanding that Latinos are here to stay," said Julio
Mendoza, the Spanish-American Merchants Association president. "And that instead
of fighting it they should be joining it."